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Archive for March, 2013

Instruments from India — 7/ The santoor


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Pandit Shivkumar Sharma (above)

IN September 2012, I had begun a monthly series on Indian musical instruments. The aim was two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they might not have heard before, and secondly, to expose relatively new audiences, mainly from the West, to the melodic or rhythmic beauty that various Indian instruments offer.

In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. However, while I have tried to name all the main musicians, the lists mentioned are by no means exhaustive or complete. In all parts of the series, I shall use a similar format to maintain uniformity, and some portions on the concert structure may be repeated verbatim if needed.

The earlier parts of the series talked about the violin, sitar, bansuri, sarangi, different types of veena and the sarod. This month, we feature the santoor.

santoor

EVERYONE immediately identifies the santoor with Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. From the ’60s, he has ruled the stage with hundreds of live concerts and released numerous albums, making him the undisputed monarch of the instrument.

Sharma, in fact, is singularly credited with the adaptation and popularisation of the santoor in Hindustani classical music. Earlier, it was played primarily in lighter forms of music, but under the guidance of his father and guru Pandit Uma Dutt Sharma, he began playing classical compositions.

Compared to the sitar, sarod and bansuri (bamboo flute), the santoor has relatively fewer practitioners. Yet, it remains hugely popular among classical music fans, mainly because of the serene and captivating music it produces. It has a distinct look too, trapezoid in shape, and is played by striking it with a pair of mallets.

Here, we shall look at the instrument’s origins, how it is played, major players and its use in other kinds of music.

Origins: An ancestral archetype of the santoor was believed to have been invented in Mesopotamia before 900 BC, and much later used in different forms in Iraq and India.

In ancient Sanskrit texts, the santoor has been called the ‘shata-tantri veena’ or hundred-stringed instrument. In India, it was primarily played in Kashmiri music and Sufiana music as an accompanying instrument.

With Sharma’s efforts, it achieved the status of a solo instrument in Hindustani classical music, and is now recognised internationally. The santoor is considered to be part of the dulcimer family, other similar instruments including the hammered dulcimer (as known in the UK, US and Canada), hackbrett (played in mainland Europe) and cimbalom (played in eastern Europe and Russia).Japan, Korea and China have their own types of dulcimers.

How the santoor is played: In any concert, the musician sits with the instrument on his lap. The broader side is placed close to the musician, and he strikes the strings with a pair of mallets or hammers.

Different strings produce different sounds and a typical santoor has two sets of bridges, with a three-octave range. Tuning is done through pegs located on the musician’s right.

The santoor is primarily played by a solo artiste, with accompaniment from the tabla and from the stringed drone instrument tanpura. At times, it is also used as a duet (called jugalbandi) with other instruments, mainly the bansuri. The jugalbandis between Sharma and flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia are legendary.

A concert usually begins with the rendition of a classical raga, the melodic mode used in Indian music. The first piece comprises a three-part movement beginning with the slow alaap, increasing tempo with the jod and reaching an energetic climax with the jhala. Here, there is no tabla accompaniment.

After the alaap-jod-jhala sequence, the instrumentalist plays two or three compositions in the same raga, with tabla accompaniment. These are known as gats or bandishes, and while the santoor player demonstrates his skill here, the tabla player also gets certain portions to play brisk passages, much to the audience’s delight.

Once this first raga is over, the santoor player may play another raga, or may play certain light ragas, folk tunes or devotional pieces, depending on the time allotted. Most santoor players are known to play a light piece in raga Pahadi towards the end of the concert.

Major players: For his part, Sharma has groomed many talented santoor players like R Visweswaran, Satish Vyas, Nandkishore Muley, Dhananjay Daithankar and of course his son Rahul Sharma.

The other well-known santoor players include the senior Kashmir artiste Bhajan Sopori, the innovative Ulhas Bapat, Tarun Bhattacharya, who has studied under sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, and Snehal Muzoomdar, who is known for his jugalbandis with veena player Narayan Mani. Among the youngsters, Sopori’s son Abhay is also making a mark.

Use in other music: Besides classical concerts, Sharma also teamed up with Chaurasia to produce film music under the name Shiv-Hari. He has thus used the santoor in films like ‘Silsila’, ‘Chandni’, ‘Lamhe’ and ‘Darr’, besides playing the instrument in older film songs.

By and large, Sharma has stayed away from fusion. The only known experiment in this genre was the piece ‘Shringar’ with the group Remember Shakti at a live concert in Mumbai. But his concept album ‘The Call of the Valley’, with Chaurasia and guitarist Brij Bhushan Kabra, has been a best-seller in Hindustani classical music.

Rahul Sharma has been taking the santoor to newer areas, especially through his collaborations with international artistes like pianist Richard Clayderman (on the albums ‘The Confluence’ and ‘The Confluence II’), saxophonist Kenny G (on ‘Namaste India’), world music group Deep Forest (on ‘Deep India’) and Egyptian oud player Georges Kazazian (on ‘A Meeting By The Nile’).

Rahul has also released experimental albums like ‘Time Traveller’, which has a new age element, and ‘The Rebel’, which blends classical music with soft-rock and is being promoted as santoor-rock.

These albums have found a willing audience among younger listeners. They would act as a perfect initiation for those who haven’t heard much of the instrument. But to gain a deeper understanding of the santoor, it is essential to begin with any Shivkumar Sharma  classical recording, ideally with Ustad Zakir Hussain on the tabla. The santoor simply enchants you with its sheer melody.

 

Should some Hindi films avoid songs altogether?


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A MAJORITY of those reading the headline would instantly react: What rubbish! After all, from the beginning, songs have been an integral part of Hindi cinema. So what provokes such a ridiculous thought?

Well, this blogger recently saw Neeraj Pandey’s ‘Special 26’ and Subhash Kapoor’s ‘Jolly LLB’. Both movies are pretty enjoyable. The former is a suspense-filled heist drama, and the latter a satire on the legal system, complete with dramatic courtroom sequences. They have been well-received by both the critics and the public, and are definitely different from the run-of-the-mill movies one often endures.

However, both have two weaknesses. They have half-baked love angles which just don’t go with the main storylines. And they have a few unwanted songs, which simply mar their flow, almost like speed-breakers on a smooth highway. ‘Special 26’ even has a sizzling background score, but the songs by Himesh Reshammiya and MM Kreem fall totally flat. In ‘Jolly LLB’, music director Krsna’s songs just come and go unnoticed.

Such an observation has led to the question raised above. Must each and every film compulsorily have songs, whether or not they fit? In exceptional cases, why can’t filmmakers alter the rules if it’s for their own good?

Over the years, there have been very few movies without songs. The older lot includes J B H Wadia’s ‘Naujawan’ and B R Chopra’s ‘Kanoon’. Singeetham Srinivasan Rao’s ‘Pushpak’ (which was a silent film anyway) and Ramgopal Varma’s ‘Kaun’ didn’t have songs. Neither did Neeraj  Pandey’s successful debut ‘A Wednesday!. And the last one makes us think: if his debut film was successful without songs, why did he have to include them in his follow-up ‘Special 26’, when there was really no need?

There were also films which had only one representational song, or one tune with the end credits. In 1964, Sunil Dutt’s ‘Yaadein’ had Vasant Desai’s ‘Dekha hai sapna koi’. Earlier, films like ‘Ek Doctor Ki Maut’ and ‘Ek Ruka Hua Faisla’ avoided songs.

Examples of the past decade include Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Black’ (Monty Sharma’s ‘Haan maine chookar dekha hai’) and Nishikanth Kamath’s ‘Mumbai Meri Jaan’ (which didn’t have any new song but used the old ‘CID’ classic ‘Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan’ at the end), Ramgopal Varma’s ‘Bhoot’ had a nine-track audio CD, but in the film, only Sunidhi Chauhan’s ‘Ghor andhere’ was used during the end credits.

What’s obvious is that all these films had narratives that didn’t necessarily require any song and dance. But then, such examples are few and far between. By and large, the idea of producing a Hindi film without songs or with only one song just doesn’t exist.

Even if one suggests that so-and-so film shouldn’t have songs, it’s unlikely that filmmakers will really obey. To begin with, there is a mindset that Hindi films must have songs. But in today’s scenario, there are other reasons why producers and directors will not do away with them.

A film’s music is always a source of revenue for the producer. By selling audio rights to the music label, he makes up for some of the money spent in creating the film, including costs incurred on producing songs.

Secondly, music is also used as a marketing tool. The audio CD is normally released a few months before the film, often at a party where the stars get media publicity. Snippets of the film’s songs are used as promos in various television channels. It’s a good way of creating awareness about the film without revealing too many details.

Thirdly, a few good songs can always keep a bad film alive. Even if the film flops, there might be additional people wanting to watch it just for the songs, or as is more likely these days, see their favourite stars dance to those songs.

The musician fraternity will naturally oppose the idea of having films without songs. And the stars need songs even after the film’s release, so that they can perform them at awards ceremonies or live shows. Keeping all this in mind, why would anybody in his right mind want to release films without songs?

Obviously, a whopping majority will not even think of doing such a thing. And one is not even suggesting that such a trend occur.

What we’re trying to say is that if the film’s subject is strong enough and any intrusion will affect the flow, songs may be unnecessary. This may be more applicable to films with loads of suspense, ones with a superfast pace or to a section of horror movies.

Even if one insists on using songs for any of the reasons mentioned above, one should use them intelligently, so that they blend with the script, instead of affecting the smoothness of the plot. It might even help using them in the background smartly. Or if one wants to release many songs, follow the ‘Bhoot’ example — record them and put them on a CD, but don’t include them in the film.

The truth, of course, is that many filmmakers feel songless films aren’t a safe option. Whether that is because of creative or commercial reasons, one doesn’t know. As such, only a handful of them have actually gone ahead and released such films.

That brings us back to ‘Special 26’ and ‘Jolly LLB’. However wonderful and enjoyable the films are overall, they’d probably have been better without the songs. We’re sure there are quite a few films in the pipeline, with offbeat subjects, and which don’t really need songs. That’s something that needs a bit of thought.

Discovering the brilliance of Jason Molina


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THOUGH his name seemed vaguely familiar, I had never heard the music of Jason Molina, till I read the news of his recent death in the Guardian website. Today, I am totally hooked to his songs, wondering how I missed out on someone who’s easily one of the best songwriters of the past two decades.

Jason died on March 16 at the young age of 39, following organ failure caused by excessive consumption of alcohol. He recorded songs under his own name, or under the group names Songs: Ohia or Magnolia Electric Co, where he invited different guest artistes.

Honestly, I might not have read the Guardian article seriously, but a couple of lines instantly grabbed my attention, as writer Everett True described Jason as “a singer-songwriter of singular grace” and that “everything he created had a beautiful handmade feel.”

Naturally, such free-flowing accolades aren’t meant to be taken lightly. I keep reading more about Jason, and soon heard his song ‘The Dark Don’t Hide It’, which instantly hit me with its jangling alternative rock electric guitars, a country pedal steel guitar in the backdrop, and the lines:

Something held me down and made me make a promise
That I wouldn’t tell when the truth forgets about us
But saying it now comes easily
After finding out how you’ve been using me
At least the dark don’t hide it¸ At least the dark don’t hide it

Hugely impressed, I heard his other songs, first on YouTube, and then on http://live.magnoliaelectricco.com which is streaming his entire catalogue for a limited period. There were many gems – ‘Almost Was Good Enough’, ‘Long Desert Train’, ‘Let Me Go, Let Me Go, Let Me Go’, ‘The Harvest Law’, ‘Didn’t It Rain’, ‘Northstar Blues’, ‘Ring The Bell’, ‘Farewell Transmission’, ‘Song For The Road’, ‘Such Pretty Eyes For A Snake’ and the strangely-titled ‘Honey, Watch Your Ass’. And there are numerous songs I am yet to hear.

It’s just the third day since I’ve immersed myself in Jason’s music, but a few thoughts come to mind. To begin with, how does one describe his sound? He’s been categorised as alternative folk-rock or indie-rock, but that’s because of the obvious blend of alternative rock and country/ folk that one finds in many tunes, with a good mix of electric and acoustic.

Lyrically, many songs may remind you of Leonard Cohen, moreso because they are melancholic and dark, and yet leave you with a sense of hope, and in some cases, even a smile. Influences of Bob Dylan and Tim Buckley also seem evident in the words, and the overall sound would make you think of Tim Hardin, Nick Drake or Jeff Buckley, and at times even Neil Young.

Whatever, there’s a certain uniqueness in Jason’s music that makes it so effective, so endearing, so ethereal. At the same time, he was really prolific, releasing 19 albums, six EPs and man singles since 1996, including an album in collaboration with Will Johnson. Some of his albums, like “What Comes After The Blues’, ‘Magnolia Electric Co’, ‘The Lioness’, ‘Axcess & Ace’, ‘Didn’t It Rain’ and ‘Autumn Bird Songs’, are filled with songs that can only be termed as outstanding.

Still, in the larger scheme of things, Jason Molina never got the recognition he deserved. The masses barely knew about him. Part of the reason may be that he was never on any of the major record companies. His indie label Secretly Canadian has obviously done a lot not only to promote his music, but also to raise funds for his treatment. Yet, his audience seems limited to a select group, who all swear by his music, at least going by some of the tributes one has read in blogs and on YouTube.

Jason had been in terrible health for the past few years, doing his round of rehabs. Yet, he kept writing music till the very end. His chronic alcoholism was well-known. And though one can’t say it for sure, one would assume that his personal condition and mental framework were reflected very clearly in the songs he wrote.

It’s strange, of course, that one gets to hear a genius like him only after his death. A similar thing happened with singer-songwriter Terry Callier (see earlier blog). A great singer every which way, he wasn’t too well-known among the masses, but after he passed away in October 2012, his songs suddenly hit the airwaves. Personally, I had heard a few Callier songs before, but actually discovered his music only after he died.

Jason had a huge amount of talent, which needs to be showcased and spread to the serious listener at this stage. To people who follow words and meaning, to those who want their music to have depth and substance.

A good way to start is with the song ‘Long Desert Train’. Just a gentle acoustic guitar and a heavenly voice. One may simply search the song on YouTube, but it would also be ideal to check out its words, which I am reproducing below in its entirety.

This is Jason Molina at his best. And this is only one of them. What imagination, really. Hopefully, more and more people will discover this magician.

Long Desert Train/ Jason Molina, from the album ‘Pyramid Electric Co’

You used to love a lot of things
You used to love talking
This you never told me about

If it’s what your eyes were saying
I already figured it out

I could just tell it was bad
I couldn’t tell how bad
You never took off your shades
And you stayed like that for days

I guess your pain never weakened
Your cool blood started burning
Scorching most of us in the flames

But there are things you can’t change
There are things you can’t change

You called that the curse of a human’s life
That you couldn’t change

Said you’d never be old enough
Or young enough
Tall enough
Thin enough
Smart enough
Brave enough
Rich enough
Pretty enough
Strong enough
Good enough
Well you were to us

You wanted silence by itself
Just the word
You wanted peace by itself
Just to learn

There were things you couldn’t change
You got the dull pounding rain
You got the last car in the long desert train
You almost made it
You almost made it again

 

CD review/ Vayuputras ― Various artistes


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Vayuputras/ Various artistes

Genre: Devotional/ fusion

Times Music/ Rs 295

Rating: ****

AMONG the contemporary Indian writers, Amish Tripathi has proved to be hugely popular with his Shiva trilogy. The first two books ‘The Immortals of Meluha’ and ‘The Secret of the Nagas’ were really well-written, and commercially successful too.

The author has just come out with the concluding part ‘The Oath of The Vayuputras’, and on the eve of its release, he launched an 11-track CD called ‘Vayuputras’. Produced by seasoned music industry professional Raajeev Sharma, the album features a host of artistes, including classical duo Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra, singers Sonu Nigam and Euphoria’s Palash Sen, percussionist Taufiq Qureshi, tabla exponent Bickram Ghosh and multi-instrumentalist Raghav Sachar, besides some lesser-known but really talented names.

The music is primarily devotional in nature, filled with shlokas and chants of ‘Har Har Mahadev’, but with a contemporary feel and fusion flavour. Despite a considerable amount of programming, the songs use a lot of traditional instruments, including the bansuri, sitar, sarod, ektara, tabla and even the characteristic mridangam on a composition depicting the dance of the Nataraj. However, one wishes the rudra veena, said to be the instrument dear to Lord Shiva, was used somewhere.

Many people would be familiar with the song ‘Jo Vayuputra Ho’, composed by Taufiq Qureshi with vocals by Sonu Nigam, as it features in the promotions. The 10th song on the album, it has modern orchestrations including electric guitars and keyboards, and uses the lines: “Shapath se na apath ho woh jo Vayuputra ho.”

However, before that comes on, there’s plenty of melody magic. The opening number, ‘The Shiva Trilogy Theme: Neelkanth’, has been composed by Taufiq, who also plays percussion. A highlight is the wonderful flute-playing of Varad Kathapurkar. With its ambient mood and catchy arrangements, it sets the perfect tone.

The next four songs are inspired by situations taking place in the ‘Meluha’ book. ‘She Enters His Life’, which talks of Sati entering the life of Shiva, has been composed by Aditya Jain and Durgesh Khot. It begins with the shlokaBrahmanandamparama sukhadam kevalam jnanamurtim”, and is followed by melodic taraana-styled vocals by Saurabh Shetye and Supriya Ramalingam.

‘Nataraj: The Lord of Dance’ has been composed by Bickram Ghosh, and boasts of vibrant shloka chants and classical vocal elements, and energetic instrumental rendition, with sarod, sitar, tabla and mridangam. Taufiq’s ‘Har Har Mahadev’ is a speech before a war, with Amish himself reciting the English words. ‘Bhadra Bam Bole’, composed by Arijit Datta and featuring robust vocals by Prasant A Samadhar, is based on many incidents in which Shiva smokes the chillum.

‘Jawab Do Prabhu’, performed by the group Aghor along with vocalist Jataveda Banerjee, represents the ‘Nagas’ book. Orchestrated with a bhajan feel and charming flute passages, it evokes a sense of sadness and emotion with lines like: “Tum the meri duniya, mere ishwar, mere vidhaata, phir bhi tum mujhe chhod gaye, yaad kiya,maine yaad kiya” and “Hey Prabhu, kaise paaoon tohra pyaar, jawaab do, jawaab do, Ishwar mere, jawaab do.” Super number this.

The next piece ‘Kashi to Panchvati’ is composed and performed by Sunny Thadani and Charan Singh Pathania, with vocals by Saurabh Shetye. A Yanniesque new age-meets-electronica feel, sweeping orchestrations and powerful drums make this an absolute winner, and the ‘Satyam Sundaram’ recitations at the end leave you with a high.

Two tracks are inspired by the concluding ‘Vayuputras’ book. Raghav Sachar’s ‘Shiva Sanware’ has a Rahman-like flavour, pleasant arrangements, lyrics by Rohit Sharma and sweet-sounding vocals by Paroma Dasgupta. ‘Badri Re, Prabhu Ram’, composed by Tatva Kundalini, features Palash Sen of the band Euphoria. With its balance of Hindi and English lyrics and even its compositional style, it is reminiscent of the Colonial Cousins sound.

The album concludes with ‘Om Namah Shivay’, which contains recitation of chants by Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra. With its shankh opening, strong tanpuras and bansuri interludes, the piece induces a feeling of peace and calmness.

Though the CD has essentially been released to market the Shiva trilogy, it stands out on its own, with some fantastic compositions, and ability to relate to the themes used in the books. While we strongly recommend you read the books too, the CD is a must for music buffs whether they have a habit of reading or not.

RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Simply outstanding

Take Five: A beginner’s guide to ‘world music’


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(Above): Afro Celt Sound System

In November 2012, we started a series called ‘Take Five’, which would recommend five albums or artistes from various genres of international music. This series will be carried once in two months. The first two parts talked of British alternative rock and classical crossover, respectively. This month, we look at five essential albums in world music.

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(Above) Toumani Diabate (left) and Ali Farka Toure

THE term ‘world music’ is rather vague. It has no standard definition, and yet, there are a few loose theories about what it means. To add to the confusion, we have terms like world fusion, global fusion, ethnic fusion and worldbeat, which mean pretty much the same.

For the Americans, world music includes any music created outside the US, outside the western classical sphere and outside any English language music produced in countries other than the US (read: England, Australia, New Zealand). Thus, for someone in that continent, Indian music is also part of world music.

Here in India, Indian music is anything but world music. Indians believe world music is music produced in any part of the world, except the English-speaking countries (the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand), except for very clearly-defined genres like jazz, the blues or electronic dance music, and except for music produced by neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Whatever the definition, ‘world music’ quite simply exposes listeners from one part of the world to music from other regions. And for someone in India, it would include music from Africa, Latin America, Europe minus its western classical element, the Middle East and the Far East.

The popularity of world music has increased over the past decade or so. Rock musician Peter Gabriel has played a major role by organising the World of Music Arts & Dance (Womad) festival and also starting the label Real World Records to promote music from different geographical regions. Other labels like ECM and Nonesuch Records have done their bit too, while the Grammy awards have a category for best world music album.

In the late 90s, the release of ‘Buena Vista Social Club’, an album and film featuring Cuban musician Juan de Marcos Gonsalez and American guitarist Ry Cooder, and featuring old-timers like Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzales and Ibrahim Ferrer, led to the revival of Cuban and Latin American music.

Those who haven’t really followed the genre may wonder where to begin, as both record stores and YouTube are flooded with such albums and videos. Keeping this in mind, we suggest essential five albums that can be used as an introduction to this genre. Since we are keeping Indian audiences primarily in mind, we shall not talk of Indian music, even though an Argentinian or Albanian reading this blog may believe Indian music is world music.

This, of course, is a very basic introduction, which omits music from certain specific and important parts of the world. It’s ideal enough for beginners, though.

Mongo Santamaria – Sabroso (Cuba): Cuban conga player and composer Santamaria is best-known for composing the jazz standard ‘Afro Blue’ in the late 50s. In the 1960 album ‘Sabroso’, he focused on traditional Cuban music played by a charanga (ensemble) that included violinists, a flautist, trumpeter, tenor saxophonist, pianist, bassist and timbale player, besides vocalists.

The album contains 13 songs, filled with energy and rustic melody. In fact, the songs revolve on dance forms like the mambo and pachanga, thus making them vibrant. The stand-out cuts are ‘Pachanga pa ti’, ‘Mambo de cuco’, the catchy ‘El bote’ and the live version of ‘Para ti’.

This is traditional Latin American music at its best.

Hevia – Tierra de Nadie (Spain): Jose Angel Hevia Velesco, popularly known as Hevia, is a Spanish player of the bagpipes. He also invented the midi electronic bagpipes, which he often plays live. Hevia specialises in music from the Asturian region of Spain.

Released in 1998, ‘Tierra de Nadie’ is Hevia’s debut album. It instantly got noticed because of its opening track ‘Busindre Reel’, a foot-tapping tune that became quite a rage. Other songs like ‘Llaciana’, ‘Gaviotes’ and ‘La Linea Trazada’ brim with infectious melody.

Though his later albums did not match it both in terms of quality and success, ‘Tierra’ should definitely be checked out.

Mickey Hart – Planet Drum (various): Best known as drummer of rock band Grateful Dead, Mickey Hart diversified into global percussion with the 1991 album ‘Planet Drum’. It won the first Grammy for best world music album.

As the title suggests, ‘Planet Drum’ featured percussionists from all over the world. Besides Hart, an American, it had tabla player Zakir Hussain and ghatam (a type of pot) exponent Vikku Vinayakram from India, talking drum player Sikiru Adepoju and Babatunde Olatunji from Nigeria, conga player Giovanni Hidalgo and Frank Colon from Puerto Rico , and drummer Airto Moreira from Brazil. Airto’s wife Flora Purim provided vocal support.

The album, which has 13 tracks, set the trend for similar percussion-based albums featuring rhythmic styles from various regions. In terms of sound, it’s a masterpiece.

Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate – In The Heart of the Moon (Mali): The West African country of Mali has produced some amazing musicians, including singer Salif Keita, guitarist Ali Farka Toure and his son Vieux, and brothers Sidiki and Toumani Diabate, who play the kora, a 21-stringed bridge harp.

In this classic album, Ali Farka Toure and Toumani collaborate to produce 12 tracks based mostly on Songhai traditions of the north Mali and the Bambara traditions of southern Mali and neighbouring Guinea. Released in 2005, it was recorded without rehearsals, and also features a guest appearance by the renowned Ry Cooder on three tracks.

Toure, who passed away in 2006, was known to blend traditional Malian music with the blues, and this album provides a fantastic exposure to the music of West Africa. After Toure’s death, the album ‘Ali and Toumani’ was released in 2010.

Afro-Celt Sound System – Further In Time (Various): As the name suggests, Afro-Celt Sound System blends African and Celtic music, but to make it trendier, it adds modern electronic dance sounds like trip-hop and techno, resulting in a heady cocktail.

The 2001 release ‘Further in Time’ is the group’s third album, after ‘Sound Magic’ and ‘Release’, which featured the famous ‘Eireann’. The group uses African instruments like the kora harp, talking drums and djembe (a percussion instrument), Celtic instruments like the Uilleann pipes and Indian instruments like tabla and dhol drum, beside guitars, mandolins, pianos, keyboards, flutes and drums.

The 12-track set has guest appearances by Peter Gabriel on ‘When You’re Falling’ and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant on ‘Life Begin Again’. The band later renamed itself to Afrocelts, and though it’s cut down on releases of late, remains one of the pioneers of world music.

While these five albums can provide a good beginning to world music, there’s obviously much, much more to choose from. Fifty years after her death, French singer Edith Piaf is still a rage across Europe, and is now bracketed in the world music category. Angelique Kidjo of Benin, Africa, is one of the frontrunners of this genre. Her performance in Mumbai two years ago was memorable.

Others you may try include Umm Kulthumm of Egypt, Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, Ofra Haza from Israel, Ladysmith Black Mambazzo from South Africa, Varttina from Finland, Aomusic from the US, Japan’s Kazue Sawae on the stringed instrument koto and Sevara Nazarkhan from Uzbekhistan. Besides these, there are flamenco guitarists Paco de Lucia, Paco Pena, Jesse Cook, Ottmar Leibert and the duo of Jorge Strunz and Ardeshir Farah.

The list is endless, but once you get into some of them, you’ll automatically discover more. World music is an ocean which just keeps growing larger.

Norah Jones and one of the ultimate love songs


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It’s not the pale moon that excites me
That thrills and delights me
Oh no, it’s just the nearness of you

THE band had taken a break, when Norah Jones began the opening lines of the 75-year-old jazz standard ‘The Nearness of You’, with her piano providing the perfect backdrop for her solo rendition. She had sung the song in her Grammy-winning 2002 album ‘Come Away With Me’, and also made an appearance rendering it in the film ‘Two Weeks Notice’. This time, it was one of the clear highlights of her show at Mumbai’s Turf Club on March 3.

In her 90-minute set, Norah also rendered her biggest hits ‘Come Away With Me’, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Don’t’ Know Why’, besides ‘Happy Pills’, ‘Miriam’, ‘Say Goodbye’, ‘Lone Star’ and ‘What Am I To You?’, among others. Her back-up band was superb, using keyboards and Hammond organ, electric guitars, bass and drums, and on some of the rearranged country-converted numbers, a double bass, acoustic guitar and accordion.

After the smash success of her first two albums, Norah’s recent recordings have tended to get repetitive and formula-driven. This is something we covered in the blog ‘The rise and stagnancy of Norah Jones’, posted on June 4 last year. Yet, despite much variety in terms of compositions, her live show was a true surprise, moreso because one would have expected her to sound better in a closed, intimate setting, rather than an open-air venue like the Turf Club. She sang beautifully and consistently.

That much about Norah’s performance, which she dedicated to her father, the late Pandit Ravi Shankar. Let’s now talk of the ever-so-popular ‘The Nearness Of You’, with which we began this feature.

Composed in 1938 by Hoagy Carmichael with lyrics by Ned Washington, this is one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. A marvellous tune, often backed by piano, and wonderful and simple words make it a classic. After the opening lines mentioned above, it continues with:

It isn’t your sweet conversation
That brings this sensation
Oh no, it’s just the nearness of you

When you’re in my arms
And I feel you so close to me
All my wildest dreams came true

I need no soft lights to enchant me
If you will only grant me
The right to hold you ever so tight
And to feel in the night
The nearness of you

Interestingly, it is also one of the most-covered songs ever. Like the other great standards ‘Summertime’, ‘Autumn Leaves’, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, ‘My Funny Valentine’, ‘Nature Boy’ and ‘Fever’, it has been performed by numerous artistes in a variety of styles. And while Norah’s version is definitely popular among her fans, there have been many breath-taking and lesser-known versions by others.

The song was first featured in the 1938 film Romance In The Dark. The first really popular version, which begins with a long orchestral passage, was recorded by bandleader Glenn Miller. Ever since, we’ve had male versions, female versions, duets, instrumental jazz versions, vocal versions with jazz instrumentation, and even country, soul and blues versions.

The earlier generation of men who sang this song include Frank Sinatra, Matt Monro, Pat Boone, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Paul Anka. Rod Stewart has rendered it in his inimitable style, and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards has added his own touch in a bootleg recording, playing the piano himself.

Country superstar Willie Nelson, soul sensation James Brown and bluesman Dr John have adapted the tune to their genres. And there’s an absolute beauty (this blogger’s personal favourite) by super-singer James Taylor, with Michael Brecker on saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano and Pat Metheny on guitar, on the album ‘The Ballad Book: Nearness of You’.

The women who have covered this song include Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Bassey, Etta James, Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, Jo Stafford,  Sheena Easton, Diana Krall and Diane Reeves, besides Norah, of course. The collaborations include the great Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong on trumpet and vocals, Abbey Lincoln with pianist Hank Jones and Nancy Wilson with pianist George Shearing.

Some of the instrumental jazz versions are astounding. The great saxophonist Stan Getz has rendered it with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, trumpeter Chet Baker has teamed up with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and saxophonist Joshua Redman has played a 12-minute improvisation with pianist Brad Mehldau. Another memorable collaboration was between alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, clarinettist Woody Herman and percussionist Tito Puente.

Saxophonists Ben Webster, Branford Marsalis, Sonny Stitt and Frank Morgan, pianist Red Garland, trumpeter Chris Botti, violinist Stephane Grappelli and vibraphonist Mike Manieri have also done commendable versions.

Besides these, there are many others who have covered this song. With so many fabulous versions over the years, where does Norah’s recording stand? Well, more than anybody else, she has introduced it to today’s younger generation. Though her fans are more likely to prefer her songs ‘Come Away With Me’, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Don’t Know Why’, they have become aware of this jazz classic thanks to Norah. We wish more of the younger singers take such standards and carry them forward in a similar way.

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